That Old Feeling: The Oscar Race

  • Share
  • Read Later

Halle Berry accepts her Oscar for best actress

(3 of 3)

In this year's Best Actress competition, Sissy Spacek was at first as clear a front runner as Crowe had been. Then, just before ballots were to be mailed in, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Spacek appeared in just 39% of her movie, "In the Bedroom." The implication, that Spacek was essentially a supporting actress, allowed members to think more seriously about Berry's performance. And as they thought, they might be touched by the complex personal history of this beautiful, talented woman. She had been mistreated by men; then she apparently found a good man. She pleaded no-contest to leaving the scene of an accident; then she learned to stand up for herself and her sisters. She had been a luscious ornament to films; then she threw herself into one, body and soul. Whether or not Berry's Oscar was a "rehab" prize, all those personal factors may have contributed to her win. It's in the grand Academy tradition.

And, yes, Berry is black. And, yes, she gave a very emotional acceptance speech.


And now, back to our argument. Here's some of what I wrote in the story I wrote the morning after Oscar Night:

Not that Berry's looks and pluck aren't laudable, or that she didn't do good work in "Monster's Ball" ... But can we see the big picture for a second? The 74-year history of the Academy Awards, let alone the scourged history of U.S. race relations, was not leading up to the moment when a former Miss Teen All-American with a white mom and a knack for finding the company of abusive black men was voted an acting prize from a bunch of industry alterkockers. ... The real black movie heroes and heroines are from an earlier, sorrier era. ... Thanks to them, and white producers willing to cast them, the picture for black actors has got much better, though not perfect. ... [Berry] was the beneficiary, not the victim, of white members' votes. ... [Denzel Washington's acceptance speech allowed the audience] to share his pleasure — whereas, for Berry, one could feel only embarrassment. ... Berry's Oscar may not even have been about race; it could have been a rehab prize for the hit-and-run perp who made a smart, little-film career move.

Some of that reads a little sharp; and I certainly underestimated the pain it might give readers who had invested themselves so deeply in the first Oscar for Best Actress awarded to a black woman. But I do believe my thoughts and feelings were and are valid. And I do believe some of my correspondents were a little free with the word "racist."

To reiterate what I've told many readers: I like Berry; I like her work in "Monster's Ball"; I wrote two admiring stories about her in the January issue of TIME; it was fine by me that she won the Oscar. I didn't like her speech.

First, I was flummoxed by Berry's wracked astonishment when her name was called out. It's not as if this award came out of the blue; she had already been named Best Actress for "Monster's Ball" by the Screen Actors Guild, the National Board of Review and the Berlin Film Festival. And she was one of five finalists for the Actress Oscar. Surely she knew this — she was sitting in an aisle seat. For Berry to be convulsed by surprise must mean she did not believe a black woman would ever win as Best Actress prize. For once in its history, someone underestimated the Motion Picture Academy.

Berry's speech certainly had an arresting dramatic arc: beginning in hysterics, ending in exultation and gratitude, as she seemed to channel all black actresses before her. Then she shouted to the timekeeper: "74 years here, I've got to take this time!" In fairness leaning toward indulgence, I might describe the speech as a powerful performance that polarized viewers — either overwhelmed or embarrassed them.

For an Oscar acceptance speech is a performance: the actor playing that role of a lifetime, himself or himself. For the majority of those watching, it is the face, the voice, the most seductive ad campaign for both the performer and the movie. Berry was speaking that night to an audience of 800 million TV viewers — perhaps 100 times the number that will see "Monster's Ball." She was the writer, director and actor, the auteur of her speech. And I was the critic; I felt as entitled to disapprove of her emoting there as I did to praise her performance in the movie. I thought she was as open to criticism as Sally Field, Warren Beatty or Roberto Benigni in previous years. Race had nothing to do with it.

But then a white person would say that, wouldn't he? He is so comfortable in his skin, and takes that comfort so for-granted, that he doesn't realize the anguish people feel in theirs. As Lorinel Johnson of Princeton University wrote me: "It is next to impossible to have an intelligent and honest discussion with a white person about race unless this person is familiar with the concept of white-skin privilege." Perhaps I'm being racist — "profoundly racist" is Ms. Johnson's term — when I criticize one five-minute speech by a performer I've often lauded. But then what am I when I commend Halle Berry? Or stick it to actors and moviemakers who happen to be white? I thought all my arguments proceeded from the premise that people were individuals, not ethnic blocs. But, my own critics, would say, that's just white-skin privilege talking. I must have been blind to think I was color-blind.

I do think we're all trapped and armored in our own skins, souls and notions. I do believe Halle Berry is as accountable as any other performer, of any color, for the character of her acceptance speech; and that I am as accountable as any rap artist for the things I write. Keep the brickbats and bouquets coming, people — to me and to anyone else who stirs your passion or rancor.


That night, Berry thanked "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." That rhetoric had potent reverberations among some viewers. As CutiePie4 wrote me: "You can not even begin to grasp the emotion that all of us black women felt when her name was called. For us it means hope. Berry's win means that young black girls who dream of being actresses can finally see that they will be rewarded for their talent and hard work."

Another of my eloquent correspondents, Rahman Henderson, said of the Berry Oscar, "Her win will also make Hollywood think twice before denying a black women for a challenging and potentially 'Oscar-worthy' role. Studios tend to cast actresses they believe will ensure the commercial or critical success of a film. In the past, producers have openly denied roles to black women for one or both of those reasons. That may not be the case any more."

I wish that were true. But the history of Oscar and Hollywood inclines me to be wary. First of all, Berry didn't vote herself the award; the overwhelmingly Caucasian academy did. That's another white-skin privilege: to make minorities feel good by giving them prizes. Second, it's tough for black women to get good roles, but then it's tough for all women. Hollywood movies are a man's, and a boy's game, even more than they are the privilege of whites. The question isn't whether black actresses will win more Oscars, but whether they'll get more and better roles. And, again, that's up to the white folks who run Hollywood.

And third, the early Oscars given to people of color — to McDaniel and Poitier, Umeki and Moreno — didn't lead either to a slew of Oscars or a slew of good roles for minorities. Halle Berry will get attractive roles because she is, by any cultural definition, attractive. But Hollywood loves to stereotype, regardless of race or because of it. Black men can be saints or gangstas, but you'll rarely see them as either Indiana Jones or all the Ordinary Joes in offices and factories. Black women can be babes or victims, but rarely the millions of middle-class moms and workers who keep the country moving.

Maybe those roles, those movies will come. Maybe soon an award to black, Asian and other film artists will be seen as having no racial meaning whatsoever. But that will be in a different Hollywood, a different America — when people of all colors will have such access to equality that they forget what color they are.

Next time: The First Black Movie Heroes

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next